Gabrielle Union stars in Being Mary Jane, on the sometimes fun, sometimes lonely life of the single black career girl.
The new BET scripted series Being Mary Jane starts off with the much-quoted statistic that 42 percent of African-American women are single, but before you roll your eyes, you should note that it quickly says this is only one woman’s story.
Gabrielle Union plays the lead character, Mary Jane, a beautiful, successful, well-educated single woman. She drives a fancy car, lives in a beautiful home, and has a great job as a news anchor. But we soon learn her world is not perfect—far from it. Indeed, one minute Mary Jane is laughing with her gay best friend and the next she’s sitting on the edge of her tub crying her eyes out.
It is the latest project from writer and producer Mara Brock Akil, creator of Girlfriends and The Game. Akil is known for exploring the lives of African-American women through her work. Her recent venture takes us beyond the statistics and gives us a glimpse into the life of one black woman—the challenges she faces and her difficult journey.
“I’m really trying to speak about women, but through the lens this time of a black woman. A lot of times we get to experience what a woman is through other cultures, other nuances. And I just think it’s beautiful that her face this time is beautiful and brown,” says Akil.
Like many single black women, Mary Jane struggles to balance her career aspirations, dysfunctional family life, and a love life filled with betrayal and disappointment. For the many women at a recent screening of the movie in Washington, D.C., this is a story they know all too well.
“I could see myself in that film,” says Rachelle Johnson, 36, an international-relations public-policy wonk. “I saw a lot of parallels in my life and what women experience in their work life, personal life with relationships, as well as family life.”
We see Mary Jane deal with an ailing mother, a bereft father, and a brother dealing with substance abuse. When her young niece gets pregnant yet again, Mary Jane desperately tries to get her on another path, only to realize that her efforts are for naught.
Cassandra Morgan, 52, a health-care consultant, says she can relate.
“She’s kind of the one that’s holding the family together. They come to her when they have issues in terms of money,” says Morgan, a graduate of Spelman College. “Unfortunately that is what happens to a lot of us. We end up taking on the family issues.”
On the job, Mary Jane thrives. She is a popular anchor with an admiring fan base. But behind the scenes she fights to get stories on the air that she is passionate about and feels are important.
Angela Wagner, 41, says she understands the challenges of trying to be heard in the workplace, and as an African-American woman, she says, she often has to edit her ideas. She attended Howard University and knows many Mary Janes—the super-successful black woman who has yet to find that truly intimate, committed, monogamous relationship where she is adored, cherished, and respected.
“I have many, many friends, who are professional, fit, educated, who have master’s degrees, law degrees, medical degrees, and they’re all single. Never been married,” says Wagner, a legal administrator in Washington, D.C. “They’ve dated, but it’s never come together for them.”
It’s a familiar refrain.
“You know, you work hard and you look up and you have these things that you’ve tried to accomplish—the successful career, the house, the car—but there are aspects missing from your life—there’s no family, there’s no spouse, there’s no children, because you’ve spent all your energy and time trying to get these other things in place,” points out Johnson, who has a master's degree from Georgetown University. “It was interesting because she was a successful woman and people thought she was happy. People assume because you have the material wealth that you’re happy.
Though there may be comparisons to Ally McBeal or Bridget Jones, Mary Jane is a different character, unique in her complexity, yet universal in her humanness. She’s funny and flawed. She doesn’t make the best decisions all the time and sometimes does more damage than good. You want to shake her, hug her, sit her down. But you ultimately root for her.
Being Mary Jane provides a different perspective of the black woman, says Morgan.
“It depicts a side of black women that you don’t typically see portrayed on TV,” notes the D.C. native. “A lot of times they try to make us ‘the angry black woman.’”
Johnson says she doesn’t associate with the women on television. “If you look at the reality shows, I’m not really represented in those shows as a black woman,” says Johnson. “What’s interesting though is that [Akil] was able to depict that reality of our lives in a show that’s not a reality show. She did a scripted show that I think is more realistic and more real.”
And that’s her goal, says Akil, to paint the reality of black women and peel back the layers that make us who we are—the success, the fashion, the hair, the makeup, and all the things that say “We are somebody, see us, think of us.”
Being Mary Jane the movie premieres on BET July 2, and the series starts in 2014. Wagner is looking forward to the show.
“I welcome something like this on television—black women who have it together, who don’t necessarily have to fight to get what they need and know how to handle their business,” says Wagner. “It’s just a nice fresh change as far as television shows.”
Indeed, Mary Jane exemplifies today’s single black woman—educated, accomplished, driven. Yet her heart yearns for more. We get a front-row seat to the inner workings of her life beyond the image she portrays to the world. There we find a complicated soul hidden behind an anchorwoman’s smile.
“I think Mary Jane is all of us, and I think it’s time for us to redefine who we are and not keep chasing what we have been told,” says Akil. “She’s not perfect, but I do believe she’s deserving of love. She’s deserving of the best, and I think that’s all of us.”